A collection of ghost stories and the fiction debut from the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Good, The Bad And The Furry and 21st Century Yokel.
I’ve never, to my knowledge, lived with a ghost but I did go to school with a few. The primary school I attended as a pupil and where my mum taught was a Victorian building in central Nottingham, all high ceilings and thick exposed pipes: a building that still seems unusually large and factory-like now, but was impossibly vast to me as a seven or eight year-old. My mum often stayed late, making art for displays, which meant the only three people in the building were her, me and the janitor. The building had been used as a hospital in both World Wars, teachers and pupils often talked about how heavily haunted it was, and while I waited for my mum to finish her work I amused myself by hunting in every echoey room and little-visited storage cupboard for evidence of the supernatural. In the winter of 1984, the janitor, a broad polish man named Bill with a shaft of light in the corner of each of his eyes, told me that after everyone went home, the soldiers who had died here in the 1940s came out of their hiding places and walked the corridors in sad silence - many of them missing at least one limb. It took a few weeks of hoping and searching until I saw one myself, and the sighting was brief: a faded figure in uniform, something between air and skin, ducking around the corner of a stairwell. Nothing else happened. He was almost half there. Then he was gone. I was thrilled and talked about little else for weeks.
Of course, as a near sceptic, I now doubt my pre-pubescent eyes. My imagine was so riotously strong at that age when it came to anything involving spectral appearances, that I could easily have willed the soldier ghost into being. Earlier that year I’d found a book of ghost stories - Tales For The Midnight Hour - in my classroom and memorised each one. For the following few months, I found myself awake every night, watchful and alert, unable to sleep until the midnight hour was over. I memorised spooky tales, embellishing them, and retelling them to my classmates, eventually making up a few of my own. And then, at my uninspiring Secondary school, I became a less bookish kid, being led astray by sport and eventually messing up my exams, but even in that setting I would still host my own minor literary ghost talks, somehow managing to hold the attention of my fellow delinquents. I now realise that the storyteller part of me - and the impulse to unsettle people slightly through storytelling - has been there for a long, long time.
21st Century Yokel - the non-fiction book I have just published, the first book I funded through Unbound - was the book I’d been wanting to write since my early to mid 20s, but had to wait 17 years until I was capable of doing so. Help The Witch, my first work of fiction, is different: it’s the book I have been wanting to write since I was nine. It’s full of subjects I’ve been yearning to tackle for years - subjects that I knew only fiction would allow me to fully open my imagination’s floodgates and write about properly. But I think its material has also benefited from the passage of time and, as a collection of ghost stories, it is very different to what it might have been, had I hurled myself into it at any point in my past. I am writing it as a sceptic-romantic, someone who is obsessed with the idea of the supernatural but has a lot of practical questions regarding ghosts, yet who also has a lot of questions about incidents in my life that are unexplainable by science or logic (a door, locked on the inside, slamming open on a windless evening in a Dartmoor cottage; a night in an occult shipwrecker’s house, waking up with drawing pins in my legs). I am also coming at it as someone addicted to throwing himself into eerie landscapes: a walker who tramps an average of 45 miles through the British countryside every week, sometimes in fading light, sometimes in no light at all. Someone who - to put it bluntly - gets off on silent holloways, ruined barns, ancient stone crosses on mizzled moorland, smudgey unidentifiable figures on heathery bluffs.
Someone recently asked me what scares me and I realised that, with age, my fear has separated into two distinct types. First, there’s the stuff that genuinely terrifies me: the idea of losing a loved one, the prospect that I might have inadvertently said something that hurt someone’s feelings in a conversation seven years ago, the idea of filling in my tax return. Then there’s another kind of fear: the one I (not really so) secretly enjoy, and the one that dominates this book. The fear of walking through grainy ominous terrain in winter, alone, and wanting to spin around, because you are sure you are being followed. The fear of a chipped, dusty object on your mantelpiece that once seemed to forsage a bad event. The fear of entering a ruined house on a hill that’s been reclaimed by crows and bats. The fear of a space, domestic or otherwise, palpably packed with an accumulation of dark history. Some of these ideas will be familiar to readers of 21st Century Yokel, and, although Help The Witch is a very different book, it follows on in that it is another book entranced by landscape, giddy with Place, the enchanting folklore written in the blood of our land and the power of nature. Trees, hares, old mossy walls, old dumped bottles, are as crucial as - arguably more crucial, at times - the people, and ex-people, in these stories. I must be honest here: some of these ghost stories do not even contain a ghost, or what we think of conventionally as one. I am thinking of them less as a collection of horror stories, and more as a quite diverse collection of short stories, all brought together by a certain Britishness, and a strong element of the unsettling or uncanny. They are as influenced by William Trevor, David Thomson and Annie Proulx as they are by MR James, EF Benson and Robert Aickman.
There is something very apt about the fact that, a day after the funding for this book opens I will be moving back to the part of the British countryside that dominated the most ghost-obsessed period of my childhood: north Derbyshire, just a few hills away from my childhood home, where I walked so much with my family, and whose mists and hills and stark gritstone buildings had such an overwhelming effect on my febrile juvenile mind. And in winter, too. Just down the road from what is known as ‘The Plague Village’. What could be more apt, for the writing of a collection of ghost stories? Derbyshire played an important part of the finale of 21st Century Yokel. One early reader of it astutely remarked that I’d “written myself back home”. Some of these stories take place in other parts of the country but that’s what they are dominated by: Home. I think it’s a good place to explore the thin curtain between life and death and why it fascinates us.
I was initially going to write something bigger than Help The Witch for my tenth book: another first step into fiction, a novel that I’ve had brewing inside me for a while. But in the end, these stories won, mainly by the fact that, for a period of a month, recently, the ideas for them kept coming to me, one after another, in my sleep, not quite in the midnight hour, but the bit after. The darkest part of the night. They will make for a smaller book than my last one, and almost certainly than my next, and I am aware that short stories are less sexy than a novel, but sexy isn’t everything, and there are times in life when everyone has to be unsexy. I want these stories to live, even though many of their subjects will be doing the opposite of that, and I hope that their effect might in their readers’ minds something akin to those conversations between my parents and me when I was little. That after reading one, late at night, you might ask yourself, “Just one more?” Then, after a small protest from yourself, that you might back down, by answering, “Oh, go on then. But no more after that.”
It was 35 years since Sandra had first rented the cottage and since then much about it had remained static. She had lost the last of a head of startlingly jet black hair down one of the two upstairs plugholes, a succession of small dogs who were now interred behind a Buddleia in the garden and an intermittently wretched husband who wasn’t. But it was still the same calm, unpulsating space that it had been in 1972, on the first day she’d walked into it: same 1940s aga dominating the small kitchen, same brown living room wallpaper vaguely stained with the nicotine of her predecessor, and, most crucially of all, the same monthly rent. It was a building that oozed quiet. She could reach the threshold of number 18 in no more than eleven paces from her back door but that was enough for an enormous change in ambience to take place: a change that had grown more extreme with the years, or which she had become more tuned into, or perhaps a bit of both. She would notice now, for example, upon her occasional visits to the garden of number 18 in spring or summer, that the air in had a thick, almost sparkly quality that made being in it feel a little like being inside an old sepia postcard, and also that the air seemed to be rigorously observing the garden’s boundaries. Maybe it had always been this way, but maybe it had grown. A house, Sandra felt, could be, and might even primarily be, an accumulation of all that had happened inside it. Furniture and people could be taken away, a large firm could be sent in to deep clean the carpets and cobwebbed corners, but something would remain. Sometimes what remained was bad. Then, because it was still there, it might prompt another badness to occur. Then, before you knew it, a succession of badnesses had built up and, even if there was an attempt at a goodness, the cumulative badnesses was too much for it, and it would be repelled, effortlessly ejected with a strength so great, so fortified by time, as to be invincible.
Twelve different sets of tenants had come and gone from number 18 in Sandra’s time and, although that not might seem an unusually huge amount, over the course of three and a half decades, she could see the pattern, and it was undeniable: anyone else who’d been able to watch the house at such close quarters would have seen it too. Some new inhabitants arrived wearing their own previous sadnesses like big tiring coats but those were not the really agonising ones to watch. What hurt Sandra was seeing the ones with the open faces, the unblemished idealised concepts of the constant pinnacle that existence could be: the good-looking ones with the nests of healthy hair, earthenware mugs, young pets and carefully cultivated plantpot collections. The photos with the listing of the house always undersold it, didn’t even hint at the proximity of the river, or the old well in the enclosed front courtyard, and a “can’t believe our luck” expression amongst new arrivals became familiar to Sandra. She knew what was in store for them, but she said nothing. She brightly offered local footpath and grocery knowledge, kindly fed cats, dogs and rabbits. She played her role of Divorced Lady Across The Track Who Is Ever So Nice But A Little Quirky, With Her Interests In Bones And UFOs.
In 1981, a tall slim American arrived, having secured a job teaching history at the university on the edge of town. After a month, a similarly tall and slim American wife arrived to join him, but left after only three months. He stayed on alone until that same autumn, leaving on a day of tungsten-edged Russian winds, chasing paperwork into the river as he loaded a white van without assistance. A week earlier he had spoken to Sandra of a dream he’d had of squelchy wetness leaking up from house’s floorboards and the rooms being overrun with unnamed amphibians. The American’s successors were two nurses: best friends who Sandra once saw holding hands in the queue for the cinema in town but whose screaming arguments carried through the open windows of the house in summer, all the way to Sandra’s place and beyond to die on the hillside, muffled by bracken. They somehow lasted four whole years, before departing in silence in the same VW camper van.
Sandra only ever stayed the night at number 18 once, in 1978, although not by intention. This was not long after Sandra’s divorce, during the residency of Evelyn, a social worker with a topiary of red curly hair. After too much of Evelyn’s potent homebrew, Sandra and Evelyn had fallen asleep on opposite sofas in the front room, a table between them, hosting a ouija board and a half-completed game of Scrabble. Five hours later, Sandra had woken with a start, after feeling one cold finger trace itself not entirely unpleasantly up her wrist and a thin unisex voice whisper, “You have five years” in her ear. A slight fog had settled outside, stretching thirty feet beyond the river into the garden, but no more, at neck height. Sandra sat up and, with Evelyn still semi-comatose opposite her, crept out of the door and walked the eleven paces home, through mist and abrupt nonmist. Without telling anyone, she spent the next half decade convinced of her forecasted death: so convinced that, once beyond the deadline, her immense relief led her to live with a new looseness and swagger, feel almost grateful to the icy fingered nightmare voice, and embark on a series of flings, all of which were were terminated at a time strictly of her choosing. The only regrettable one of these was with Russell, a salesman she had met during his seven month tenancy at number 18 in 1987, but not had relations with until much later, when he had moved to a large executive housing estate closer to town, all of whose male residents, not discounting Russell, were vigilant in washing their cars at least once every three days. Resolutely unartistic in bed, Russell had complained when Sandra had entered his car with an open drink can and instructed her to leave it on the road, and not long after that it was all over. She’d later discovered from the landlords of number 18, Steve and Berenice, that upon his departure Russell had stolen two of the chairs and left a broadsword and a box of pornographic videotapes in the loft. Evelyn stopped speaking to Sandra in 1986, when Sandra refused to come to her wedding in Cyprus, on the grounds of fear of flying, but Sandra often wondered how she was doing and got within a couple of steps of half a small notion of trying to track her down online.
From 1996 - the same year Sandra took the photo of the ghost on the gate outside number 18 - the tenants in the house seemed to get drastically younger, their clothes more complimentary to their body shapes. Time and again, she’d guess the age of a tenant as 22 or 23, only to find that they were in their early or even mid 30s. Sometimes, looking at the youthful people in the house, Sandra would be awed at her own reaction to their hair and skin: the radiance of both, their absolute ungreyness. Because of this, the pallor of the tenants upon moving out was even more troubling to witness, as if number 18 itself had given triggered the inexorable decline that is halted only by the cemetery. In 1999, Toby and Anne arrived in the house in a flurry of small hens and Moroccan rugs. Sandra had by this point begun to do some research into the history of number 18 and made some interesting findings. Taking over some sloes and apples she had foraged for her new neighbours, she asked Toby, who worked with computers, about what she’d heard about the Millennium Bug, and whether it would make the universe collapse in a few weeks when the new century arrived, and Toby said it was nonsense. The conversation didn’t make Sandra trust computers any more than she already did, which was barely at all, but it did give her a trust in Toby, who had an unguarded smile and was the first man for many years to live at number 18 who owned a smaller than average car. Anne maintained two jobs, as a baker in the mornings and as a yoga teacher and receptionist at the Buddhist centre in town in the evening, and the couple were trying for their first child. For the first six months, their tenancy only seemed to be marred by their problems with number 20, the house attached to number 18 on the side furthest from Sandra’s, also owned by Steve and Berenice, which was at the time being rented by two girls in their mid twenties - Sandra had initially taken them for teenagers - who did noisy step exercises against the joining wall and had weekly parties centring around what Sandra called “thumpy thump” music. Sandra soon became invested in Anne and Toby’s battle with number 20, not to mention in Anne and Toby themselves: their future as parents, as keepers of bantam hens, and as the first contented residents of number 18 in living memory. She even went so far as to send a letter to Steve and Berenice, explaining that she too had been disturbed by the noise from number 20, even though that was not strictly true. The thumpy thump music died down towards the summer of the century’s first year and an impressive and plush new set of garden furniture appeared outside number 18, so it was with considerable shock and dismay that, one day, on the dusty track separating them, Sandra bumped into Anne and received the news that she was moving out, and with even more shock and dismay that, over a cup of tea in Sandra’s kitchen, twenty minutes later, she discovered that the decision had been triggered by the afternoon the previous week when Anne had walked in on Toby, who was naked, on their own sofa, intertwined with the more strapping of the two girls from number 20, who herself was at least half naked. Although she would not act on it for a long time, it was at this point that Sandra first got the idea of burning number 18 to the ground.
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